Nevada Senate votes to ban texting, hand-held phones while driving

CARSON CITY — A bill that would prohibit motorists from using hand-held cellphones while driving and others designed to prevent animal abuse overcame a major hurdle Tuesday when they cleared their house of origin.

Deadline day at the Legislature also included last-minute partisan maneuvering to divert bills heading for passage back to a money committee to face possible death by neglect. They included a bill to repeal the requirement that motorcycle riders wear helmets. Bills sent to a money committee are no longer subject to the deadline.

The Legislature is grinding through a 120-day session that is mostly defined by Democrats’ efforts to peel off the Republicans they need to defeat Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval’s proposed $5.8 billion general fund budget for 2011-13.

But beyond budget bills covering spending and taxes, which aren’t affected by the deadline, legislators are seeking to shepherd through hundreds of other bills, some that might become budget bargaining chips later.
“Even if they die today, they come back at the end of session,” said Sen. Mike Schneider, D-Las Vegas, foreshadowing the so-called “endgame” when lawmakers cut last-minute budget deals near adjournment on June 6.

CELLPHONE BILL ADVANCES

One bill that made the deadline was Senate Bill 140, which would prohibit drivers from using cellphones and other hand-held devices for text messaging and other tasks while driving.

Under the bill, violators would be fined $50 for the first offense, $100 for the second and $250 for third and subsequent offenses. Police would give drivers warnings until Jan. 1, when the fines would go into effect.
The bill passed the Senate 12-9, with 11 Democrats and Senate Minority Leader Mike McGinness, R-Fallon, voting in favor and the nine remaining Republicans opposed.

“It’s a safety issue,” said Sen. Shirley Breeden, D-Henderson, the primary sponsor. “It is really simple. We are still allowing folks to use a cellphone, but it has to be hands-free. Pay attention to driving.”

Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, R-Reno, said he would have supported an anti-texting bill, but the cellphone parts of the bill should have been clarified.

He said some research shows hands-free devices are just as hazardous as using a cellphone. And under Breeden’s bill, he said, a driver could not push a detour button on a Global Positioning System location device when he or she came to a roadblock.

Breeden said she was disappointed that more Republicans did not support the bill and anticipated some of their concerns will be answered when the Assembly considers her bill in coming weeks. A similar bill passed the Assembly Transportation Committee but was referred to the Ways and Means Committee for additional review.

Aides to Gov. Brian Sandoval said previously the governor will not say whether he will sign or veto a cellphone-texting bill until it reaches his desk.

Thirty states ban all drivers from texting, while eight others prohibit juvenile drivers from texting.

ANIMAL PROTECTION BILLS

Senate Bill 299 would create statewide regulations to prevent animal abuse at “puppy mills,” facilities critics say are crowded with pure-bred dogs that are kept in deplorable conditions and forced to breed and produce puppies for sale in pet stores.

The bill by Sen. Mark Manendo, D-Las Vegas, passed 16-5.

Although Clark and other counties already have puppy mill regulations, proponents say the rules will protect animals in counties such as Nye and Elko where such regulations aren’t in place.

Also, in a 14-7 vote, the Senate approved Senate Bill 223, which would make animal cruelty a felony in certain egregious incidents.

Under the bill, “torturing or unjustifiably maiming, mutilating or killing” an animal would be a felony, punishable by at least one year in prison.

If the animal were harmed or killed by those methods as a way to intimidate or terrorize the owner, then the crime also would be a felony with a possible longer sentence.

Under current law, crimes against pets are misdemeanors, which often result in little punishment.

Breeden, sponsor of the bill, said that she was pleased by bipartisan support for her bill and that felony prosecutions would be brought in only extreme cases of animal cruelty.

“We need to catch those folks and send a message that it is unacceptable,” Breeden said.

OTHER BILLS ADVANCE

Other bills that advanced in the Senate included the following:

■ Senate Bill 232 by Sen. John Lee, D-North Las Vegas, would remove land near Mount Charleston from the Spring Mountains National Recreation Area so owners of Las Vegas Ski & Snowboard Resort can develop a snow play area. Backers say the bill, which passed 21-0, will reduce traffic congestion caused by illegal parking near an existing sled area and allow park developers to create a cleaner, safer place for visitors to sled in Lee Canyon.

■ Senate Bill 264 would require the Department of Health and Human Services to report medical mistakes known as “sentinel events” that occur in hospitals and other facilities.

■ Senate Bill 339 would require medical facilities to post information about infections acquired in the facility. The problems both health bills seek to address were highlighted in a series on medical care in Nevada by the Las Vegas Sun.

■ Senate Bill 214 would lift state restrictions that prohibit toll roads for a proposed highway bypass around Boulder City. The bill passed 19-2 with Schneider and Sen. Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, opposed.

DIDN’T MEET DEADLINE

Other measures became victims of last-minute maneuvering. They’re still alive, though, because they were moved to a money committee.

■ Senate Bill 177 by Sen. Don Gustavson, R-Sparks, would repeal the requirement that motorcycle riders wear helmets.

Such a repeal had been proposed but died in committee in previous sessions, but Gustavson’s bill managed to make it to the floor. But when it came up on deadline day, rather than being advanced, it was kicked back to the Senate Committee on Finance, where it could die without any further action.

The Finance Committee, led by Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas, took the bill because of the addition of a fiscal note, a document that says the bill will cost taxpayer money.

Gustavson said the note, which originated from University Medical Center in Las Vegas, was unsolicited, and he objected to its inclusion. “We’ll just have to go out there and have to prove our point, that the fiscal note from UMC is not valid,” Gustavson said.

■ Senate Bill 188 by Sen. James Settelmeyer, R-Minden, was suggested by Corrections Department workers to change overtime laws to accommodate 12-hour shifts for prison workers.

But an amendment Settelmeyer didn’t support, which would make the shifts a requirement, was added as Horsford was a sponsor.

“Now it is Horsford’s bill, and it goes to Finance (Committee),” Settelmeyer said.

Contact reporter Benjamin Spillman at bspillman@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3861. Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at evogel@reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3901.

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